Treatise on the Gods

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Treatise on the Gods (1930) is H. L. Mencken's survey of the history and philosophy of religion.


Ch. 1: The Nature and Origin of Religion[edit]

  • The ancient and curious thing called religion, as it shows itself in the modern world, is often so overladen with excrescences and irrelevancies that its fundamental nature tends to be obscured.
  • Its [religion's] single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him. ...they are the only common characters that all of them show. Nothing else is essential.
  • In its pure and simple form religion is not often encountered today. It is almost as rare, indeed, as pure democracy or pure reason.
  • Within all great religions there arise, from time to time, cults, which seek to rid worship of formalization and artificiality. One of the most familiar of them is called mysticism. ...There were mystics among the ancient Jews, and their ideas gave pungency and glamor to the Book of Revelation.
  • The essence of mysticism is that it breaks down all barriers between the devotee and his god, and thereby makes the act of worship a direct and personal matter. ...without the aid of any human agent, he comes face to face with his god, and can make his wants known directly.
  • Open any treatise upon pastoral theology and you will find the author warning his sacerdotal readers against old women who pray too much and are otherwise too intimate with God.
  • If all the faithful inclined to mysticism, and had a talent for it, there would be empty pews in the churches and the whole ecclesiastical structure would begin to rock. But... a downright prohibition of mysticism would be only too plainly a prohibition of religion.
  • ...there is really no need for the gentlemen of the cloth to be alarmed, for not too many human beings... are fit for encounters with the gods. The rest prefer to transact their business at a distance and through intermediaries.
  • Protestantism itself, in its early phases, was plainly a movement toward mysticism: its purpose, at least in theory, was to remove the priestly veil separating man from the revealed Word of God. But that veil was restored almost instantly, and by the year 1522, five years after Wittenberg, Luther was damning the Anabaptists with all the ferocious certainty of a medieval Pope, and his followers were docily accepting his teaching.
  • It is highly probable that the first priest appeared to the world simultaneously with the first religion; nay, that he actually invented it.
  • The invention of fire-making apparatus is never ascribed to the whole tribe, nor even to a group within it, but always to a single Fire-Bringer, and usually he is felt to be so unusual that he is credited with a divine character. ...The very myths themselves are the compositions, not of the folk, but of professional artists—humble, perhaps, but gifted more than most. So with folk-songs. So with theological dramas. So with theories of government.
  • Certainly religion must be granted to be one of the greatest inventions ever made on earth. It not only probably antedated all the rest... it was also more valuable to the Dawn Man than any or all of them. For it had the peculiar virtue of making his existence more endurable.
  • He was afflicted by a new curse: the power to think... man suffered under the stealthy, insidious assaults of his awakening brain... It not only caused him to remember the tree that came near falling on him the previous week; it also enabled him to picture the tree that might actually fetch him tomorrow... now he was harried by a concept of danger in general, and tortured by speculations about its how and why.
  • Three devices for dealing with this accumulating unpleasantness lay before him... seeking out the causes... knowledge... denying that it was unpleasant... poetry... and... trying to halt the falling of trees by appealing and protesting to the unseen but palpable powers... magic or religion. I incline to believe that the third device was adopted before either of the other two. ...All mammals, in truth, seem to have an inborn tendency to identify causation with volition. They are naturally pugnacious, and life to them consists largely of a search for something or someone to blame it on.
  • The birds and insects... are highly scientific... in inventiveness they are they are far superior to all mammals save man.
  • If ants and bees have any conception of religion at all, they are probably atheists. But primitive man as a mammal naturally made his first attempt to better his lot, not by adding labor to his other pains, but by seeking to placate or destroy his enemies and by courting his friends.
  • ...drowning, dropping sunstruck, getting killed by lightning, by wild beasts or by falling rocks and trees, dying in general. An inimical volition seemed to lurk in all of them. It was not hard to imagine some evil will throwing down the avalanche, or sending the lightning, or drawing the drowning man down to death. In fact, it was easier to imagine it than not to imagine it.
  • To primitive man thinking was even more unpalatable than it is to the modern Christians. He did it badly, as they do, and his brief experience of it had taught him that it brought only woe.
  • The concept of the supernatural... must have come much later. To primitive man all things were natural. He did not think of lightnings, winds and avalanches as differing in essence from tigers and wolves; he thought of them as substantially identical to tigers and wolves. ...Thus the earliest imaginable religion, in the strict sense, had no gods; it simply had powers of extraordinary potency, to be dealt with as ordinary powers are dealt with, but with a certain exaggeration of effort.
  • Rivals... must have come upon the scene at a very early stage, for the new trade of priestcraft had attractions that were plainly visible... It carried an air of pleasing novelty; there was daring in it, and thrills therewith; it made for popularity and a spacious and lazy life; dignity belonged to it; above all, it seemed easy.
  • We may assume that the first practitioner [of priestcraft] hastened to spread the word that there was vastly more to it than appeared on the surface—that under his facile whoops and gyrations glowed a peculiar inward illumination, highly refined in its nature and hard to achieve. Hints of the same sort still come from holy men: it is... their own singular state of grace, partly engendered by the apostolic laying on of hands, and partly the fruit of an inborn gift for holiness.
  • The first priest [probably]... soon grasped the fact that his monopoly could not last... he sought to dispose of his most formidable rival by admitting him as an apprentice... presently there was a whole guild of them... pooling their professional secrets and equipment, accumulating a tradition, and acquiring a definite place in society.
  • The moment one priest turned into two all these qualifications for kingship went for naught, for one was destroyed that was greater than all of them, and that was the character of a single and indivisible man.
  • The simple savages of those days had not yet formulated the concept of government by committee; they wanted to be led... They were yet close cousins to the brutes who hunted in packs, always with one leader.
  • They [primitive men] had no communal policy save that of forthright attack upon whatever seemed to menace them; they had not yet invented congresses, plebiscites, or even councils of war: their minds were still too primitive to be equal to the colossal feat—perhaps the most revolutionary, when it was achieved at last, in the whole history of man—of lifting reflection from its natural place after action, or, at best, alongside, and putting it in front.
  • When a ruler... submits gracefully to the religious ideas prevailing among his people he greatly augments his prestige and popularity. Believers are consoled and even skeptics are reassured, for skepticism commonly distrusts iconoclasm as much as it distrusts orthodoxy.
  • The clergy repay this friendly recognition of their place in society by an almost unfailing devotion to the constituted authorities. When they take part in rebellions, it is almost always against subversive usurpers, not legitimate rulers. ...Their prayers always go up for kings, not for rebels and reformers.
  • The great religious reformers have never preached the liberation of the masses. Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley were all on the side of authority. The Catholic church is for it everywhere today, and the more intransigent it is the better the church likes it.
  • The patriotism of a priest is like the patriotism of a stock-broker. When he is found questioning the established order it usually develops, upon inquiry, that he is also questioning the tenets of the church, and he is on his way to heresy.
  • It may be that there are magicians who are not also priests, but it would be hard to find a priest who is not, in some sense, a magician.
  • Only the "species," or "accidents," i.e., the outward appearances, of the bread and wine remain; otherwise, they are completely transformed into flesh and blood. Here we have all the characteristics of a magical act, as experts set them forth: the suspension of natural laws, the transmutation of material substance, the use of puissant verbal formula, and the presence of an adept.
  • Magic or religion: it is all one.
  • Theologians themselves dispose of the matter by calling everything they do an act of religion, including even such operations as bedizening themselves with high-sounding titles and dignities, superior to any ever claimed by Christ, and laying taxes upon the faithful for their own aggrandizement.
  • Their [the theologians'] earliest forerunners... were aware of no difference between magic and religion, but practiced both with easy consciences.

Ch. 2: Its Evolution[edit]

  • Early man... sought to identify himself with the animals he especially admired, and when he ate their flesh it was not alone to nourish his body but also to enrich his psyche with their virtues. ...That aspiration... was to lead... to the physical horrors of cannibalism on the one hand and to the intellectual horrors of transubstantiation on the other. At a much earlier period it was to set up the curious institution of the totem... The falcon-god Horus, of the Egyptians, probably began as such a totem, and so did the cow Hathor and the serpent Neith.
  • Missionaries, I suppose, followed the traders, then as now, for it is a peculiarity of homo sapiens that he is a teaching animal, and longs always to instruct and improve his fellows. And if there were no actual missionaries, it may be safely assumed that the traders themselves were not lacking in the common zeal. If nothing else urged them to preach their gods, then they must have been inspired by mere boastfulness. Their very presence in far places was proof enough that the gods at home had the power to aid and protect them, and the will to do it. ...This naive pride in the home gods, more than any revealed command from them, is responsible for the missionary effort in our own day.
  • The custom arose of importing outlander gods... The number of gods... threatened to become enormous, for every returning traveler had news of a new one. ...most tribes had endless hierarchies, some borrowed and some bred on the spot. ...The semi-civilized Hindus have thousands. But in the presence of such multitudes, the less potent tend to be disposed for incompetence, or to be forgotten as trivial and unnecessary, or to be reduced to the rank of mere domestic divinities. Whenever a really potent new god is introduced, he clears off shoals of lesser rivals.
  • The whole history of religion in Egypt is the history of the absorption and destruction of rivals by , the sun-god; in the end... he was himself challenged and badly damaged by the great goddess Isis. Similarly the air-god of the Aztecs, Tezcatlipoca... The Catholic saints... have their heyday and decline. ...Among the Protestants, there is a like combat between the ferocious Yahweh, of Old Testament, and the gentle Jesus of the New, with Yahweh, of late, usually victorious.
  • When primitive man began to practice agriculture his need of gods greatly increased... now exposed to new and very serious hazards. ...birds ...insects ...rain ...sun ...wind-storms ...Out of the fertility cults that were thus set up there gradually arose the concept of a god specially devoted to the care of the fields, and in the course of time this god began to be thought of as a woman, for it was women who brought forth children... in the way the earth brought forth food. Moreover, it was women who did most of the field labor... Thus a goddess called the Earth Mother, the Corn Mother, or something of the sort began to be heard of... and in the course of time she became a divinity of the highest rank, and had her following throughout the vast region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Baltic. In Greece she was Gaia, in Babylon she was Ninlil, and in the wilds of the north she was Freya.
  • The earliest records of all the historical peoples, from the Sumerians to the Celts, are full of references to this Earth Mother, and she survives among the savages today, and even in Christendom. The Virgin Mary, in all probability, descends from her, for in very remote times she was already looked upon as the mother of the other gods. She gradually assimilated the special powers and prerogatives of various rivals, and even came to be identified with them.
  • Earth Mother... was never without the challenge of competitors. ...These gods were so numerous that even the priests could scarcely call the names of all of them, just as a Catholic archbishop of today would be stumped if he were asked to recite a roster of the saints. The Celts alone seem to have had thousands. ...the lesser gods were often put into groups for convenience, and their individuality tended to disappear. Thus there were the oak-spirits; the niskai, who were water-spirits; and the quadriviae, who were goddesses of the cross-roads. The early Greeks, as everyone knows, had multitudes of subordinate gods and goddesses who were similarly classified... These mediatized and regimented divinities survive today as fairies, gnomes, jinns, sylphs, trolls, fays, nixies, and kobolds. Every civilized race has its battalions of them.
  • It was not, however, the competition of such hordes of standardized godkins that menaced and finally dethroned the Earth Mother, nor that of the thousands of divine lions, wolves, goats, cats, serpents, dragons, and basilisks who raged everywhere, nor even the great predecessors, Rain, Fire, and Wind, but that of an old-timer suddenly clothed with a new dignity and power... the sun-god... the special god of kings, and the pharaohs pretended to be his children, as their colleagues of Babylonia pretended to be descended from Merodach, another sun-god.
  • Rê and Merodach, like the Earth Mother, had their counterparts among all the ancient peoples, including the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incans of the New World,
  • The old Persian devotion to the sun developed, in the course of time, into a highly intellectualized monotheism, and its prophets predicted the coming of a messiah. It was Persian priests, or magi, who came to Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus, as Mathew records. The Parsees of India... are the descendants of Old Believers who refused to yield to when the Calif Omar conquered Persia in the year 641 and ordered the whole population to turn Moslem. late as the Seventeenth Century, after a thousand years of Islam, a Persian reformer, Akbar by name, proposed formally that it be revived. ...every Moslem, facing Mecca when he prays, recalls the days when his ancestors faced the East and the risen sun, just as every Christian goes to church on Sun-day, celebrates Christmas on the dies natalis solis invictus or birthday of Mithra, and employs symbols and ceremonials borrowed from the ancient sun-worship at Easter, the time of the vernal equinox.
  • A form of sun-worship little different from that of ancient Egypt survives in Japan as Shinto, the state religion. The queen of its pantheon is Ama-terasu no Ohokami, a sun-goddess, and the mikado is her chief priest and prophet. is the Land of the Rising Sun. The sun-disk is the official emblem of the country... Shintoism has room for many other gods or kami, including sea-gods, mountain-gods, animal-gods, tree-gods, house-gods, a moon-god, a fire-god, and several heirs of the Earth Mother—some of the last named, curiously enough, being male. There are also gods who are deified human beings... But the sun-goddess is above all the rest.
  • In the Sixth Century of our era the infiltration of Buddhism into Japan corrupted her [sun-goddess Ama-terasu no Ohokami's] cult, but twelve centuries later there was a Shinto revival, and at the time of the revolution of 1865-68 an appeal to the ancient faith of the people helped to depose the shoguns and restore the mikados. Since then Shintoism has been the established religion of the country... It is, of course, too idiotic to be taken seriously by a people to be pretending to be civilized; hence most Japanese... toy with more plausible faiths, including especially Buddhism and Confucianism. They are not, indeed, a religious folk.
  • Nearly all religions... show a pull toward goddesses as they decline: the case of Christianity and its mariolatry is familiar. But the sun-god... was probably the very incarnation of maleness, as the Earth Mother was of femaleness.
  • He [the sun-god] had existed long before the first peasant turned the first sod, but it was only as one among many: the rain-god and the wind-god, to name no more, were his equals and rivals. But with the beginning of orderly sowing and reaping it must have been evident to early man that the kiss of the sun was more important to their success than anything else... not even excepting the kiss of the rain. was spectacular, lordly in mien, dramatic, brilliant, overwhelming. ...It arose in the morning with the air of a king condescending to expose himself to his lieges, and it went down in the evening to the accompaniment of incomparable fireworks. ...when it was withdrawn, life was bleak and unpleasant. At night, when it was gone, men shivered, for the air grew damp and cold, and all sorts of evil shapes were abroad. Thus it is no wonder that the early kings called the sun their father, and tried to emulate its blinding splendors.
  • The Earth Mother was limned, and her symbols were cherished, but it was apparently a long while afterward before man began to cherish the baton that was the symbol of kings. ...the baton and phallus were one and the same ...both came into the world with the greatest single discovery ever made by man, to wit, the discovery that babies have human fathers, and are not put into their mother's bodies by the gods.
  • Primitive society... was probably strictly matriarchal. ...What masculine authority there was resided in the mother's brother. ...Their father, at best, was simply a pleasant friend who fed them and played with them; at worst, he was an indecent loafer who sponged on the mother. ....Briffault, demonstrated its high probability in three immense volumes [The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions (1927)]... concepts inseparable from a matriarchate color every custom and every idea: they show also that those primeval concepts still condition our own ways of thinking and doing things, so that "the societal characters of the human mind" all seem to go back "to the functions of the female and not to those of the male."
  • It appears that man, in his remote infancy, was by no means the lord of creation that he has since become. Abroad, he could barely hold his own against the dreadful beasts that roamed the fields, and at home he was no more than a compound of butler and gigolo. His wife, if his hunting failed or she espied another who struck her fancy, could turn him out at her will.
  • Among the obscurer islands of Polynesia ...they [men] are homeless until the women take them in. They may set themselves up as priests and magicians, but the authority of a priest is determined by woman suffrage. They may consecrate themselves to politics and aspire to be chiefs, but no chief can function if the women laugh at him. ...He had no property save his spear, and no rights save the bare right to exist. ...The men's club is their one refuge, as it is the refuge of men without women in Christendom, but, like its Christian counterpart, it is dull and clammy. Dying, they issue into space as homeless ghosts, and wander about disconsolately until the prayers of women enable them to be born again, and the whole sorry round is resumed.
  • Primitive man... We picture him as a glorious hunter engaged daily in heroic combats with saber-toothed tigers, but it is highly probable that he clubbed a thousand rabbits to death for every tiger that he so much as tailed, and that when he came home he was not infrequently given a caustic dressing down.
  • The invention of agriculture... women could plant and reap as well as men, and they thus became independent economically, as they had always been independent politically and socially. It is very likely, indeed, that agriculture was a feminine discovery, for women monopolized it for countless centuries. We think of their work in the fields as slavery; in reality, it gave them the upper hand of men, especially in regions where the hunting was going off. No wonder the Earth Mother was the earliest really first-rate divinity!
  • She [Earth Mother] represented dramatically the high position of women in the world. ...Crops did not come out of the sun; they came out of the earth. Children did not issue from men; they issued from women. Man was a bystander, useful on occasions, but not a sharer in the miracle, not a contributor of his flesh. Neither, in the miracle of the fields, was the sun.
  • When some primeval and forgotten Harvey discovered the physiological role of the father... It not only altered completely the fundamental structure of the family, and hence tribal government, and hence of human society in general; it also introduced a wholly new concept into the role of religion... the gods had started out as mere malign presences, with no visible purpose save to do evil; they had developed, step by step, into powers who could do both evil and good, and might be persuaded, by remonstrance and propitiation, to choose good; they had come to be personified, finally, in a beneficent mother-spirit, nourishing the needs and heeding the aspirations of man. Now they were ready to take the grandiose form of a gracious and all-powerful father—maker and guardian of heaven and earth.
  • Man's view of the entire cosmic process changed as his view of the process of life changed. ...He must have a symbol of his own share in the great miracle of birth and growth—a divine inseminator and fructifier to stand beside the germinal Earth Mother... The obvious candidate was the sun-god. saw in him, not only the symbol of fatherhood... but also a symbol of all the new dignities and prerogatives that went with it.
  • The concept of a single omnipotent god, reigning in the heavens in solitary grandeur... was probably devised, not by theologians, but by metaphysicians. They proved there could be but one god, not by bringing up any overt evidence to that effect, but simply by appealing to what they conceived to be the logical necessities. The human race, on its more refined and exalted levels, accepted these proofs with the head, but never with the heart.
  • All the great religions surround their chief deity with lesser presences, some of them potent enough to defy him. Christianity, as everyone knows, goes to the length of separating him into three gods, all theoretically parts of a single whole, but each, nevertheless, more or less autonomous. But though the early sun-god, like these later divinities, did not and could not sweep the first firmament of all rivals, he yet managed to seize the first place among them.
  • He [the sun-god] was the special god of the now dominant and prancing male; he was the god of captains, kings, and... conquerors. ...they claimed to be his agents on earth; in widely separated regions, East, West, North, and South, they began to speak of themselves as Children of the Sun.
  • They gave him [the sun-god] a high place and liked to think of themselves as his offspring, but for everyday purposes they used whole squads of lesser gods. Thus he was never omnipotent. Prudent men, in this or that emergency, turned to other helpers. If there were enemies to blast they appealed, perhaps, to the serpent-goddess... If there was a drought, they made application to the rain-god, the sun-god's old rival. If hunting was afoot, they had recourse to some god of the chase.
  • The discovery of the physiological role of the father exalted more than man alone; it also exalted, especially after animals began to be domesticated, the ram and the bull. They appeared... as gods, often with rays or wings, no doubt to show their kinship to the sun. Man admired all such virile and gaudy animals, and liked to sweeten his reflections with the thought that he was like them. ...There were bulls among the gods of all the early peoples, from the North Sea to the Indian Ocean.
  • One of the chief functions of the gods, at the dawn of trustworthy history, was to give their votaries success in war. The Old Testament is full of accounts of their feats in that direction, and so are all the other ancient records.
  • The conquered knew quite well what had happened; their gods, in a fair fight, had turned out to be weaker than the gods of the other fellows. So it was probably common for them to come over to their notion...
  • The old gods had a way of hanging on, if only under cover. Even when the new ones were imposed by the sword, the old-timers lurked in dark and secret places... ready to burst forth at a convenient time. That happened all over Mesopotamia in the days of the great invasions, and the result was a hierarchy of gods that became enormously complicated, and even more or less antagonistic. Similarly in early America, when the Spaniards imposed Christianity upon the Aztecs and Mayans, the old gods of those peoples were not abandoned, but simply went into retirement and were soon peeping out again.
  • Whenever a king accomplished a conquest of genuine difficulty and importance, he usually followed it with hints that he himself was a sort of god. Such hints did not fall ungratefully upon his lieges, for man has always been thirsty for heroes, and ever willing to see divine attributes in them.
  • When the Teutonic pantheon first became known to the Romans it was full of gods who were hard to distinguish from men and women. ...The lives they led were really more operatic than divine, and when the time for it came they slipped into the music-dramas of Richard Wagner as easily as the Yahweh of John Calvin slips into the incantations at a hanging.
  • At Rome, the cross-roads of the world, all the gods of East and West were mingled. There were so many of them that no one believed in them any more, not even the priests. ...When an emperor died, his body was burned on a great pyre, and an eagle was released, to carry his soul to the sky; thereafter he was a god. Some of the later emperors were deified while they still lived, like Alexander of Macedon, the pharaohs of Egypt, and the Mikados of Japan. The truth is that any respectable Roman, by the simple act of dying, might become a god; all he needed was children to worship his manes.

Ch. 3: Its Varieties[edit]

  • Every religion, if it survives long enough, changes its ceremonials, and every one of them borrows constantly from the others.
  • It would be hard to discover any act of a Christian priest, of whatever rite, that is not matched in the rituals of a hundred other religions, and there is scarcely a non-Christian usage or solemnity, however barbarous it may appear at first glance, that has no parallel in the operations of Christianity.
  • Everything the Holy Church cherishes as peculiarly it own, from pedo-baptism to auricular confession and from holy communion to the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, was hoary with age before Peter ever saw Rome.
  • Four ideas lie at the bottom of all organized religions, whether ancient or modern, cultured or savage, to wit: 1) That the universe is controlled by powers of a potency superior to that of man, and that the fortunes of man are subject to their will. 2) That these powers take an interest in man, and may be influenced to favor him. 3) That certain men have greater capacity for influencing them than the generality of men. 4) That certain words and acts are more pleasing to them, and hence more likely to make them friendly, than other words and acts.
  • The concept of infinity came in relatively late, even in Egypt, and... its first fathers were more likely metaphysicians than theologians. In looking backward, as in looking forward, early man was quite unable to imagine endless time. Always he concluded that the animal creation, including his own kind, must have a beginning, and the earth he walked on, with it. Sometimes he ascribed the act of creation to the gods, or to one of them, and sometimes he laid it to a potent being of lesser dignity, usually to a totem animal.
  • The cosmogony of the Jews, as recorded in Genesis, was mainly borrowed from the Babylonians. According to A. H. Sayce, the creation myth that it embodies arose at Eridu, a town on the Persian Gulf. Here, he says in the Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, "the land was constantly growing through disposition of silt, and the belief consequently arose that the earth had originated in the same way. The water of the great deep accordingly came to be regarded as the primordial element out of which the universe was generated. The deep was identified with the Persian Gulf, which was conceived as encircling the earth." In Genesis 1, 2, the Spirit of God moves "upon the face of the waters, "before there is anything else, even light. Not only are fish precipitated from their substance, but also "fowl"... and "great whales,"... Man himself appears to be watery, too, for, though in the next chapter he is represented as formed "of the dust of the ground," it is explained that just previously "there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground." This is a palpable echo of the Babylonian Gilgamesh legend, wherein Ebani, the first man, is fashioned of clay by the Goddess Ishtar.
  • The Garden of Eden is also plainly Babylonian, for one of its rivers, the Euphrates, bears a Babylonish name, and another, the Hiddekel (no doubt the Tigris) is said to run "toward the east of Assyria." The Babylonians, whose notions of life after death were of the vaguest, believed that there was an earthly Paradise somewhere to the northwest of their country. In it, those mortals who were lucky enough to gain entrance dwelt with the gods, just as Adam dwelt with Yahweh in Eden, and from it flowed the four rivers that watered the earth. The very name of Eden seems to have been Babylonian, for in that language edina signified a pleasant plain. The Jews also got the Flood legend from the Babylonians, though in one form or another it was common throughout the East.
  • The prodigious ages of the patriarchs, as given in Genesis v... show Babylonian influence, though here the Jews seem to have tempered imitation with a considerable moderation. To match Methusaleh, who lived 969 years, there were kings of Ur who reigned for 28,800, 36,000 and even 43,200 years!
  • The Flood legend is common to all parts of the world save only Africa, and even there it is occasionally encountered. ...The gods usually send the obliterating waters because man has become hopelessly wicked, but occasionally they do so for a trivial reason. ...The fable of the Fall of Man is also widespread, and nearly always, as in Genesis, it is based upon a violation of taboo. The first man, forbidden to go into some area reserved for their pleasure, or to bath in a certain pool, or to kill a certain animal, or catch a certain fish, does so notwithstanding, and is immediately doomed to suffer disease, famine and death.

Ch. 4: Its Christian Form[edit]

  • Christianity leans upon supernaturalism more heavily than any of its principal rivals, and there is in it, even in its more refined forms, a great deal that is irrational and incredible.
  • As it [Christianity] exists today, it shows few elements that may be traced with any probability to its Founder. There is no reason to believe that He ever heard of the Virgin Birth, or of the mystical and unintelligible dogma of the Trinity, or even of Original Sin... or believing in the infallibility of the Pope. never occurred to him that men should ever worship His Mother. His ethical teachings, like his Theology... in certain fields... have been completely turned upside down.
  • It would probably shock Him [Jesus] profoundly to find Catholics doomed to Hell for neglecting their Easter duty and Protestants damned for drinking wine, for He held a cynical opinion of all priestly jurisprudence and wine to Him was a more natural drink than water.
  • The simple fact is that the New Testament, as we know it, is a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents, some of them probably of respectable origin but others palpably apocryphal, and that most of them, the good along with the bad, show unmistakable signs of being tampered with.
  • "No Biblical scholar of any standing today," says Weigall, "whether he be a clergyman or a layman, accepts the entire New Testament as authentic; all admit that many errors, misunderstandings and absurdities have crept into the story of Christ's life and other matters."
    • See Arthur Weigall, Paganism in Our Christianity Kessinger Publishing (2003) p.26
  • The earliest part of the canon, in the opinion of all competent authorities, are the Epistles of Paul, and those of I Thessalonians... In it, as in all other Pauline Epistles, there is a complete lack of any reference... to the four Gospels, so it is a fair inference that they did not exist in Paul's lifetime...
  • He [Paul] was put to death, according to the most probable guess, in the year 64. At some time during the next ten years... the Gospel of Mark was written. Who the author was we do not know with certainty, but... a reference at the end of I Peter... makes him the companion and amanuensis of Peter. ...Mark himself, if he ever saw Jesus at all, saw him only as a boy.
  • The other Gospels are plainly later. Those [other Synoptic Gospels] of Matthew and Luke lean heavily upon Mark, and almost as heavily upon a lost Gospel, to which the German critics long ago gave the designation of Q, from the German word Quelle == source. Of the two, the Gospel of Luke seems to be the older. ...probably written after the year 70, for there are passages in it which are generally taken to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in that year...
  • There is no reason to believe that Luke ever saw Jesus. All the evidence indicates that he was converted to the new faith by Paul, who made a companion of him... and took him on various missionary journeys. ...He also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, again in the form of a letter to Theophilus...
  • The Gospel of Matthew belongs to a somewhat later date—possibly to the closing years of the First Century. That it was written by the Apostle Matthew is next to impossible, for he must have been older that Jesus and by the year 90... a centenarian. But it is not unlikely that the author... made use of memoranda left by the Apostle, and these... may have constituted the Q document...
  • A statement by one Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (circa 140)... "Matthew composed logia in Hebrew, and everyone interpreted them as he was able." These logia, which seem to have consisted mainly of the sayings of Jesus, may have been in general circulation... , and the author of Matthew may have written them into his Gospel, just as he wrote in much of Mark. ...perhaps the faithful mistook the whole work for the Apostle's and so gave it its present name... we know... that it... bore that name about the year 185.
  • The Gospel of John is still later: it was probably not written until the end of the First Century... not later than 125. The identity of the author remains in doubt. He was apparently the same who wrote the two Epistles of John... but not the John who wrote Revelation, which is earlier. The remaining books of the New Testament are of varying dates, and show varying degrees of authenticity.
  • The New Testament is... a historical document of very tolerable authority, needing only to be read with due circumspection. If there are some palpable stretchers in it, then stretchers of the same sort are to be found in most of the secular histories of its remote and innocent age. If it is sometimes contradictory, puerile and absurd, then so are they. One might hesitate to liken it to any modern work of first credibility... but it is certainly quite as sound as Parson Weems' "Life of Washington," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
  • The Old Testament as history, is on a much lower level, though as poetry it has never been surpassed in the world. It is partly the product, in the form with which we are familiar, of the Jews who had been touched by the Greek enlightenment, but the essential parts of it are purely Asiatic in origin, and so they show a great deal more florid fancy than historical conscience. It is at once a book of laws, a collection of chronicles and genealogies, and a series of prophetical tracts, hymn books, erotic rhapsodies, and primitive novels.
  • Parallels to the New Testament, and especially to the Epistles, are to be found in the belles lettres of both Greece and Rome, but to find anything resembling the Old Testament one must go to such completely oriental documents as the Code of Manu, the Persian Avesta, the Indian Vedas, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
  • The Old Testament... especially in the first five books, the so-called Pentateuch... reeks with irreconcilable contradictions and patent imbecilities. ...Such things must have been noticed by sensible men at a very early time; we know, indeed, that there were bitter controversies... But it was not until the Twelfth Century of our era that the Pentateuch as a whole was subjected to rational scrutiny. The man who undertook the ungrateful task was a learned Spanish rabbi, Abraham ben Meir ibn Esra. He unearthed many absurdities, but he had to be very careful about discussing them, and it was not until five hundred years later that anything properly describable as scientific criticism... came into being. Its earliest shining lights were the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes [with his Leviathan], and the Amsterdam Jew, Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza's "Tractatus Theologico-politicus," published in 1670, made the first really formidable onslaught upon the inspired inerrancy of the Pentateuch. It called attention to scores of transparent imbecilities... including a dozen or more palpable geographical and historical impossibilities... The answer of constituted authorities was to suppress the "Tractatus," but enough copies got out... and ever since then the Old Testament has been under searching and devastating examination. The first conspicuous contributor... was a French priest, Richard Simon, but since then the Germans have had more to do with it than any other people, and so it is common for American Christians to think of the so-called Higher Criticism as a German invention...
  • The Protestant Reformation was far more political and economic in origin than theological. ...the church had become too powerful ...As wealth increased, it got so much more than its fair share that presently it was... almost as rich as kings and emperor together. had armies to enforce its decrees; it punished rebellion as savagely as any Mesopotamian potentate. The kings all hated it because it pitted one against another and was opposed to the national states that they were trying to fashion; the nobles hated it because its ubiquitous priests stood between them and their serfs; the common people hated it because its exactions kept them poor. ...There was a new economic order in the world and a new political order, and it was out of harmony with both. Knowledge was increasing faster than it could revise its theology: what had seemed indubitable... and at least believed in... now began to look absurd to all sensible men.
  • The [Protestant] Reformers were men of courage, but not many of them were intelligent. ...Few of them seem to have noticed that in rejecting the authority of the popes and setting up the Bible as the sole guide to faith and conduct they were setting up something that bore the mark of the popes on almost every page.
  • Once the faithful began to search the sacred texts there was an efflorescence of theological extravagance unmatched since the days of the early Fathers, and the new church quickly split into a multitude of factions. That process... continues to this day, with the result that Protestantism... remains a feeble force in the world, and has very little influence upon the mainstream of human thought. Its theology... is quite as preposterous as that of the church of Rome, and its practices... are quite lacking in Roman dignity. It has produced some of the most appalling theologians ever heard of...
  • Protestantism... naturally turned with most curiosity to what Catholicism had kept under cover—that is, to the apocalyptic parts of the New Testament and to the more florid and inflammatory sections of the Old. Today, its God bears the name of the New Testament Father, but, as ordinarily encountered, He is far more the Yahweh of the Old—crafty, cruel, jealous, bellicose, irrational, and vain. ...In its purer forms, it is almost a reversion to the religion of primitive man.
  • Luther ...was the theologian par excellence—cocksure, dictatorial, grasping, self-indulgent, vulgar and ignorant. "Demons," he once wrote, "live everywhere, but are especially common in Germany. On a high mountain called the Polterberg there is a pool full of them: they are held captive there by Satan. If a storm is thrown in a great storm arises and the whole countryside is overwhelmed. Many deaf persons and cripples were made so by the Devil's malice. Plagues, fevers and all sorts of other evils come from him." Much more of the same general tenor is to be found in Luther's writings. His followers of today, forgetting everything of the sort, remember only his sonorous declarations of freedom of conscience that, in truth, he never believed in.
  • John Calvin... set up an Asiatic despotism of his own, modeled upon that of the pope. ...The high point of his career was the brutal burning of Servetus, one of the most brilliant men of his time. Calvin was the Paul of early Protestantism, and the greatest of all the Protestant theologians. To this day his gloomy and nonsensical ideas remain in high esteem among the faithful... He was the true father of Puritanism, which is to say, of the worst obscenity of Western civilization.

Ch. 5: Its State Today[edit]

  • The Modern era was brought in, not by the Reformation, but by the Renaissance, which preceded it in time and greatly exceeded it in scope and dignity. The Renaissance was reversion to the spacious paganism of Greece and Rome; as someone has well said, it was a bouleversement of all principles of Christianity. Its test for ideas was not the authority behind them but the probability in them. It was immensely curious, ingenious, skeptical and daring—in brief, everything that Christianity was not. Unfortunately, its intuitions ran far ahead of its knowledge, and so, while it left all enlightened men convinced that Christian theology was a farrago of absurdities, all it had to offer in place of that theology was a body of exact facts, explaining the cosmos and man's place in it in rational terms. The task of accumulating those facts fell upon the Seventeenth Century, and the light began to dawn toward its close. One by one the basic mysteries yielded to a long line of extraordinarily brilliant and venturesome men—Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Harvey, and Leeuwenhoek among them. The universe ceased to be Yahweh's plaything and became a mechanism like any other, responding to the same immutable laws. The world dwindled to the estate of what A. J. Balfour called "one of the meanest of planets." Man became an animal—the noblest of them all, but still an animal. Heaven and Hell sank to the level of old wives' tales, and there was a vast collapse of Trinities, Virgin Births, Atonements and other such pious phantasms. The Seventeenth Century, and especially the latter half thereof, saw greater progress than had been made in the twenty centuries preceding—almost as much, indeed, as was destined to be made in the Nineteenth and Twentieth.
  • It was in... the Eighteenth [century], that Christian theology finally disappeared from the intellectual baggage of all really civilized men. On both sides of the Reformation fence the Christian church fought for its life, and nearly everywhere it had the support of the universities, which is to say, of official learning, which is to say, of organized ignorance.
  • By the middle of the [Eighteenth] century what Nietzsche was later to call a transvaluation of all values was in full blast. Nothing sacred was spared—not even the classical spirit that had been the chief attainment of the Renaissance—and of the ideas and attitudes that were attacked not many survived. It was no longer necessary to give even lip service to the old preposterous certainties, whether theological or political, aesthetic or philosophical. In France, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot were making a bonfire of all the ancient Christian superstitions; in England Gibbon was preparing to revive the long dormant art of history and Adam Smith was laying the foundations of the new science of economics; in Germany Kant was pondering an ethical scheme that that would give the Great Commandment a rational basis...
  • In one respect, at least, Christianity is vastly superior to every other religion in being today, and, indeed, to all save one of the past: it is full of lush and lovely poetry. The Bible is unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world. ...Nearly all of it comes from the Jews, and their making of it constitutes one of the most astounding phenomena in human history.
  • The story of Jesus, as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels, and especially in Luke, is touching beyond compare. It is, indeed, the most lovely story that the human mind has ever devised... The story of Jesus is the sempiternal Cinderella story, lifted to cosmic dimensions. Beside it the best that you will find in the sacred literature of Moslem and Brahman, Parsee and Buddhist, seems flat, stale and unprofitable.
  • Among Christians themselves there is a growing tendency, when they throw off Christian theology, to salvage Christian poetry. This is plainly visible in the organized lovey-dovey that began with the Rotary movement and has since proliferated...
  • The grandiose imbecility called Christian Science is... certainly not a science, not even in the lame sense that spiritualism and psychotherapy are, and no Christian theologian save a hopeless dipsomaniac would venture to call it Christianity. It is simply a kind of poetry—an organized and unquestioning belief in the palpably not true.
  • Efforts to substitute poetry for theology may be expected to multiply in the near future, for the world is plainly entering upon a new stage of myth-making. The two things, indeed, are much alike, for both are based on the doctrine that it is better to believe what is false than to suffer what is true. ...That modern man still needs such consolations is no more than proof that the emancipation of the human mind has just begun—that he is yet much closer to the ape than he is to the cherubim.
  • Religion... sends fears to haunt him—fears which stalk upon him out of the shadows of the Ages of Faith, the Apostolic Age, the Age of the Great Migrations, the Stone Age. Its time-binding afflicts him with moral ideas born of the needs of primitive and long-forgotten peoples... It is, in its very nature, a machine for scaring; it must needs fail and break down as man gains more and more knowledge, for knowledge is not only power; it is also courage.
  • Perhaps the theologians are right when they argue that... religion... at least makes humans happier... But, as William James long ago pointed out, there is a hardness of mind... and we probably owe to it every advance that we have made away from the brutes—even the long, tortured advanced toward kindness, charity, tolerance, tenderness, and common decency. It has won for us, not only the concept of the immutability of natural laws, but also the concept of the mutability of all laws made by man.
  • The truly civilized man, it seems to me, has already got away from the old puerile demand for a "meaning in life." ...His satisfactions come, not out of a childish confidence that some vague and gaseous god, hidden away in some impossible sky, made him for a lofty purpose and will preserve him to fulfill it, but out of a delight in the operations of the universe... and of his own mind, regardless of the way it takes him, just as it delights the lower animals, including those of his own species, to exercise their muscles.
  • If he [the truly civilized man] has not proved positively that religion is not true, then he has at least proved that it is not necessary. Men may live decently without it and they may die courageously without it. But not, of course, for all men. The capacity... is still rare in the race—maybe as rare as the capacity for honor. For the rest there must be faith... It is their fate to live absurdly, flogged by categorical imperatives of their own shallow imagining, and to die insanely, grasping for hands that are not there.

Biographical Note[edit]

  • In "Religion in the Making," by A. N. Whitehead... the approach is philosophical, and there are many interesting and valuable observations. But Dr. Whitehead occasionally indulges himself, like all metaphysicians, in what has a suspicious resemblance to nonsense.
    • p.297

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